PBS, BBC look at the big picture in “Earth from Space”

Earth from Space does not deal in self-contained worlds. In natural history doc parlance, this means no storylines with too narrow a focus. The lifespan of a spider will not ...
October 31, 2017

Earth from Space does not deal in self-contained worlds. In natural history doc parlance, this means no storylines with too narrow a focus. The lifespan of a spider will not be so closely scrutinized that any phenomena outside of the spider’s own finite purview is left out; the ecosystem of a single pond will be not picked apart with emphatic precision. Rather, Earth from Space is going for the big picture, using innovative techniques to illustrate the complex interconnectivity of our planet.

This is the orienting principle behind the ambitious new docuseries, whose working title in the U.S. is Life from Above — a reference to the satellite images that will make up a substantial part of its footage. A coproduction between the BBC and PBS, and set to air in late 2018, the four-part series aims to provide new insights into our planet by expanding the range of perspectives with which to look at it. In addition to satellites, producers are employing drones to generate footage, while also shooting via more conventional vantage points: from helicopters and on the ground.

It’s a big project, to be sure. Although it was initially commissioned by the BBC, the British pubcaster teamed with PBS in the U.S, a frequent partner since the establishment of a copro agreement between the two organizations in 2015.

Craig Hunter, commissioning editor, science and factual at the BBC, says that what excited him most about Earth from Space was not its subject matter as much as its unique approach. “The idea [that] you can tell individual stories of our planets’ favorite species, from space, completely blows my mind.”

Executive producer Jo Shinner and series producer Chloe Sarosh — both of whom work primarily in natural history through BBC Studios — agree. “Our business is telling the best stories we can about natural history and the natural world,” says Shinner. “And I think in terms of perspective, in terms of connectivity, being able to see the world from space [brings] a whole new meaning to life.”

The BBC and PBS worked with satellite image providers UrtheCast and its subsidiary Deimos Imaging to populate their arsenal of satellite footage. Sarosh says that that imagery, more than anything, will dictate how the series will unfold.

“It’s actually quite difficult,” she says, of deciding which themes to give to each of the series’ four episodes. “But as we began to look at these really startling images, it became clear that the way that we should theme [each episode should be determined by] what is revealed by looking at Earth from this brand new perspective.”

What was revealed was a cadence — the rhythm by which the earth moved; colors and visual patterns; the fact of the planet’s consistent evolution that becomes startling when you’re confronted with its breadth of implications. These qualities are only palpable when one considers the planet as a whole, and reach across topographical divides as well as human-made ones: borders, cultures and politics.

That examination will occur through four episodes: “Planet on the Move,” “Colorful Planet,” “Pattern Planet,” and “Changing Planet.”

“Within each one we’re covering all parts of the globe, all different types of animals, environments and stories,” Sarosh explains.

The series is not only a meditation on aerial textures, though. Footage shot from the ground will showcase the more individual, microcosmic narratives that are standard to the natural history genre. The goal — and the challenge — is to weave in and out of these details and do justice to the Earth’s intricacies, while drawing attention to their places within a bigger picture. Natural history sequences, says Shinner, “can feel a bit isolated… [like] they’re very much in their own space. These will feel like they’re a part of the world.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Shinner and Sarosh identify editing as one of the series’ most notable production challenges. “A big thing for us is the connection between the satellite imagery and the story on the ground,” says Sarosh. “We’re very much treating these satellites like our cameras, like another camera we have that just happens to be in space. We’re working very hard on the transition between where that [footage] finishes and things like aerial photography pick up.”

Recently at the Boneville Salt Flats — a stunning plain of densely packed salt in Utah — the crew filmed a woman’s first race through the Flats’ motor sports speedway, right as a satellite camera was shooting the same scene, from space. The different vantage points will lend a “rich feel,” Sarosh says, especially if the footage can be edited for fluidity and narrative cohesion.

“We expect to wrap our filming in April next year, and then go into an edit – probably quite a long edit,” she laughs.

This article first appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.

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